Telling the story of international aid

My novel explores an aid worker's dilemmas.

When we discuss foreign aid policy, we tend to talk about money. Everyone knows that New Labour boosted British expenditure on overseas aid, and that the coalition government is committed to increasing the sums even further, in particular by spending 0.7 per cent of GDP on international development from 2013. In fact, this one pledge rather dominates the whole debate.

Arguably, focusing on the cost and quantity of aid distracts attention from the more important, though much trickier, assessment of its quality and impact. The distance between Whitehall and the slums of the developing world could hardly be bigger, and it is hard to be confident that money allocated in London will actually bring about more education or better housing in Karachi, Manila or Nairobi. On the contrary, making things happen on the ground is an almost unimaginably complex challenge, and in the large, fascinating literature on development policy, some of the most compelling chapters concern precisely this gap between good intentions and carefully laid plans on the one hand, and unintended, occasionally catastrophic results on the other.

This is where my own interest in the world of foreign aid and NGOs started to take hold. My novel Ten Weeks in Africa tells the story of an Englishman, Ed Caine, who goes out to east Africa with his family to run a slum development project for a British NGO. The characters’ experiences are based on numerous accounts of such programmes. But as a novelist, I wasn’t coming to this literature on aid principally in search of policy solutions. I wanted to know how things worked out in practice, from a personal perspective, for those who had taken up the challenge of implementing development projects in poor, politically unstable states – and what happened to their colleagues, and the intended beneficiaries. 

I have not worked in overseas aid, and I am certainly no expert. I found the stories of men and women who spent years trying to bring about improvements in the lives of the world’s poorest people, moving and often humbling. But it was also remarkably discouraging. Again and again in these accounts, high hopes and good intentions are defeated by a combination of endemic corruption and the brute forces of nature. And the fact that such problems are essentially familiar to us and ought to be foreseeable, does not seem to make them any easier to deal with in practice, nor is it generally reflected in the way aid is discussed in the media.

Through Ed’s experiences, I wanted to explore the situation of an NGO manager who finds he is responsible for a project that, in the end, just cannot be made to work. To such an "international", speaking the local languages poorly, if at all, even understanding the motives of his colleagues and advisers is hard; and, especially where money and power are concerned, every action triggers negative consequences.

Even impeccably conceived projects can cause harm in practice. Drilling a well will benefit one village, but if the new boreholes cause the water-table to drop, the area of drought in the surrounding country will expand. Providing starving people with emergency supplies is a moral duty. But what if supplies are stolen by militias, enabling them to finance their war and so prolong the famine?

Such dilemmas are not unusual, as the literature on aid makes abundantly clear, and there is seldom an easy solution. I certainly do not provide answers in Ten Weeks in Africa. What my novel does offer, I hope, is an opening into a world which is both personal and realistically complex. Illuminating the dignity and interior life of human agents is one of the things good fiction can do well; and if that in itself does not solve the world’s problems, it can at least remind us of the measure by which all hoped-for solutions must ultimately be judged.

JM Shaw’s novel "Ten Weeks in Africa" is published by Sceptre (£17.99)

Aid workers in South Sudan (Photograph: Getty Images)
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Why does food taste better when we Instagram it?

Delay leads to increased pleasure when you set up a perfect shot of your dinner.

Been on holiday? Take any snaps? Of course you did – but if you’re anything like me, your friends and family didn’t make it into many of them. Frankly, I can only hope that Mr Whippy and I will still be mates in sixty years, because I’m going to have an awful lot of pictures of him to look back on.

Once a decidedly niche pursuit, photographing food is now almost as popular as eating it, and if you thought that the habit was annoying at home, it is even worse when it intrudes on the sacred peace of a holiday. Buy an ice cream and you’ll find yourself alone with a cone as your companion rushes across a four-lane highway to capture his or hers against the azure sea. Reach for a chip before the bowl has been immortalised on social media and get your hand smacked for your trouble.

It’s a trend that sucks the joy out of every meal – unless, that is, you’re the one behind the camera. A new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that taking pictures of food enhances our pleasure in it. Diners at the food court of a farmers’ market in Philadelphia were asked either to photograph their meal or to eat “as you normally would”, then were questioned about how they found it. Those in the photography group reported that not only did they enjoy their meal more, but they were “significantly more immersed in the experience” of eating it.

This backs up evidence from previous studies, including one from this year in the Journal of Consumer Marketing, which found that participants who had been asked to photograph a red velvet cake – that bleeding behemoth of American overindulgence – later rated it as significantly tastier than those who had not.

Interestingly, taking a picture of a fruit salad had no effect on its perceived charms, but “when descriptive social norms regarding healthy eating [were] made salient”, photographing these healthier foods did lead to greater enjoyment. In other words, if you see lots of glossy, beautifully lit pictures of chia seed pudding on social media, you are more likely to believe that it’s edible, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
This may seem puzzling. After all, surely anything tastes better fresh from the kitchen rather than a protracted glamour shoot – runny yolks carefully split to capture that golden ooze, strips of bacon arranged just so atop plump hemispheres of avocado, pillowy burger buns posed to give a glimpse of meat beneath. It is hardly surprising that 95 million posts on Instagram, the photo-sharing site, proudly bear the hashtag #foodporn.

However, it is this delay that is apparently responsible for the increase in pleasure: the act of rearranging that parsley garnish, or moving the plate closer to the light, increases our anticipation of what we are about to eat, forcing us to consider how delicious it looks even as we forbid ourselves to take a bite until the perfect shot is in the bag. You could no doubt achieve the same heightened sense of satisfaction by saying grace before tucking in, but you would lose the gratification that comes from imagining other people ogling your grilled Ibizan sardines as they tuck in to an egg mayonnaise at their desk.

Bear in mind, though, that the food that is most successful on Instagram often has a freakish quality – lurid, rainbow-coloured bagel-croissant hybrids that look like something out of Frankenstein’s bakery are particularly popular at the moment – which may lead to some unwise menu choices in pursuit of online acclaim.

On the plus side, if a diet of giant burgers and salted-caramel lattes leaves you feeling queasy, take heart: if there is one thing that social media likes more than #avotoast, it is embarrassing oversharing. After a week of sickening ice-cream shots, a sickbed selfie is guaranteed to cheer up the rest of us. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser